If public universities are really committed to promoting access, affordability, and quality, they should consider increasing their funding by accepting more undergraduate students instead of raising tuition and restricting enrollments. While many would argue that higher education institutions are already unable to deal with the students they currently enroll, in reality, it costs most public research universities very little to educate each additional student, and the main reason why institutions claim that they do not get enough money from state funds and student dollars is that they make the students and the state pay for activities that are not directly related to instruction and research.
To calculate how much public research universities spend on educating each undergraduate student, we can look at national statistics regarding faculty salaries and how much it costs a university to staff undergraduate courses. According to a recent study by the American Federation of Teachers, "Reversing Course," the average salary cost per class for a tenured professor at a public research university is $20,000 (4 classes at $80,000), and it costs $9,000 for a full-time non-tenure-track teacher and $4,500 for a part-time instructor to teach the same course. Using these averages, we can determine the annual instructional cost for each student by considering the number of classes each student takes in a year and how much each individual course costs. Since we know that only a third of undergraduate courses are now taught by professors, and the other courses are taught by non-tenured faculty, we can calculate the per student cost, but we first have to determine the average class size to do this calculation, and this is the analysis that I believe no one has ever done.
Looking at transcripts from several public research universities, I have determined that the average annual course load for a student is six large classes (averaging 200 students) and two small courses (averaging 20 students). Next, by using the national faculty average salary per class, and determining who actually teaches the courses (1/3 professors, 1/3 full-time non-tenure-track faculty, and 1/3 part-time faculty), we find that the total average annual instructional cost per student is $1,456 (each large class costs $56 per student and each small class costs $560). In other words, public universities charge on average $7,000 per student and they get another $8,000 per student from the state, but in reality, it only cost about a tenth of this amount to teach each student.
This means that most of the money coming from undergraduate students and the state is used to pay for sponsored research, graduate education, administration, and extracurricular activities. Furthermore, the main reason why the cost for instruction is so low is that research universities rely on large classes and inexpensive non-tenured faculty and graduate students to teach most of their undergraduate courses. However, my point is not that states or students shouldn’t support the full range of activities that universities pursue; rather, I am arguing that the best way to make up for the loss of state funding is to enroll more students.
Of course, administrators will say that I have not accounted for the cost of student services, the library, staff, administration, utilities, and maintenance. My response is that you do not build a new classroom or hire a new administrator when you enroll a new student, and there is a huge economy of scale in higher education. Moreover, universities often leave their classrooms empty for most of the day, and so by making students take courses during the evening or on the weekends, enrollments can be increased without having to build new facilities (you can also cut down on binge drinking). Thus, it seems clear from my calculations that research universities would actually turn a huge profit if they simply froze tuition and increased enrollment, so why do they not do this?
There are probably many answers to this crucial question, but I believe the main reason is that universities do not want to admit to the public that student dollars and state funds are spent on other things than instruction and related research. As many professors have told me, they do not believe that the public would support the research mission of the university, so the university has to hide how it spends its money. Many faculty have also implored me not to publicize the true cost of instruction because this will result in further reductions from the state, and by showing how money is actually spent, I will feed the right-wing attack on all public institutions.
My reply to all of these responses is that we cannot make higher education more accessible, affordable, and effective if we do not reveal to the public how we spend money and why we think it is a good thing for people to support our endeavors. I also believe that you can only run from the truth for so long until it catches up to you. Moreover, my calculations include the cost of a professor’s salary that fund the research part of his or her job.
I am not arguing here that we should get rid of tenure or stop funding research; instead, I am saying that budget transparency will allow everyone in the university to do their job in a more efficient manner as it increases educational access at a time of uncertain economic stability. If we can actually tell the public how and why we spend their money, we may actually see an increase in our support.
Bob Samuels is president of the University Council - American Federation of Teachers, which represents lecturers and librarians at the University of California. He teaches at UCLA and writes the blog Changing Universities.
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